Former Deputy President Jacob Zuma has delivered letters of demand to several members of the media for alleged defamation. In total he is presently claiming R63 million from Highveld Stereo (for playing a satirical song called “My name is Zuma“), The Star, Rapport and The Sunday Times to name a few. According to the Dispatch Online:
JACOB Zuma’s defamation claim against the media has risen to R63 million after a Johannesburg radio station “further insulted??? him, the Witness reported yesterday.
Its website said this appeared to be the largest claim by an individual for defamation in South Africa’s legal history.
The former deputy president is suing media owners, publishers, editors, reporters, cartoonists and newspapers.
Broadcaster 94.7 Highveld Stereo was initially to be sued for R5m for broadcasting a song called My name is Zuma, commenting on the Zuma rape trial.
It was played by Darren “Whackhead??? Simpson, a member of the radio station’s Rude Awakening (Raw) team.
When the team played this song again on Monday after hearing about the slander charge against them, Zuma decided to increase the claim against it to R7m.
His biggest claim against one publication amounted altogether to R20m against the Star.
The second-biggest, R10m, was against Rapport, while the Sunday Times had been hit with a R6m claim. — Sapa
As Anton Harber pointed out, this case represents a trend of using defamation as a tool to combat criticism of people in the public eye. In many ways this case is almost an extension of the recent tendency towards censoring public criticism of public officials. It is a worrying tendency and one which will hopefully be silenced should Zuma take his complaints to court:
One has to wonder if he is serious about this and will see it through, or if this is just another skirmish in his political wars. It might just be a tactic designed to keep his critics at bay for a while. For Zuma – as for any politician – to canvass his reputation in the courts will be a large and costly risk, as he will be inviting the media to dig for further information about him and his reputation.
It is not an unexpected development for defamation to come to the fore in this way in a constitutional democracy still working out just how much space the media should be given. In the US, the rights of the media to say tough things about those in power was fought around a 1960 libel case known as New York Times versus Sullivan. “The case threatened to intimidate the national press and broadcasters from covering the civil rights protests,??? journalist Anthony Lewis wrote in his riveting account of the case, Make no Law. “It was an epic legal battle – one that was crucial to the continuing freedom of the American press.???
In that case, the US Supreme Court rule that to succeed in a defamation charge a public figure needed to show “actual malice??? on the part of the media. It was not enough to show that what was said was untrue and harmful, because the court recognized the value and importance of allowing the public to debate and discuss the conduct of public officials.
Justice Brandeis wrote the classic formulation of the argument when he said the US Founding Fathers “believed that …public discussion is a political duty … it is hazardous to discourage thought, hope and imagination; that fear breads repression; that repression breeds hate; that hate menaces stable government; that the path of safety lies in the opportunity to discuss freely supposed grievances and proposed remedies; and that the fitting remedy for evil counsels is good ones.???
The implication is that the public interest in promoting debate and discussion is more important than the need to protect politicians, even from damaging and erroneous criticism.
If this case proceeds it will most likely find its way to the Constitutional Court where one of the big questions before that court may well be the extent of the freedom of the press and the freedom of expression as enshrined in our Bill of Rights.
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